It has been more than 60 years since the release of Horse Feathers, the last great film about college football. Horse Feathers had everything—Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, a college widow, passwords, speakeasies, ringers, stolen playbooks and madcap dialogue that generations have heard once and recalled forever.
"Oh, Professor, you're so full of whimsy."
"Can you notice it from there? I'm always that way after I eat radishes."
The gassy new gridiron movie Rudy is full of something, but it's sure not whimsy. Based on the true story of Rudy Ruettiger, it's one of those wistfully reverential against-all-odds success stories that's so sweetly uplifting that it reduces the American Dream to 28 seconds of football and a quarterback sack. What must have attracted producers to this tale was the fact that it hadn't been made in a couple of years. The plot—as slim as it is—was worn out in 1939, maybe 1933. But audiences bought it then and just about every time since, and maybe Rudy will become another Rocky.
Sean Astin plays Rudy, a Notre Dame football cultist who believes in the ethos of the Gipper and the Fighting Irish of Knute Rockne. Rudy dreams of playing defense for Notre Dame. Unhappily, he's about 50 years too late and 100 pounds too light. He can't even get into Notre Dame on grades, let alone football talent.
Working on his father's crew in a Midwestern steel mill, he feels cut off from the higher callings, incomplete. When his best friend literally explodes on the job, Rudy takes oil' for South Bend. He would rather face 300-pound offensive tackles than blast furnaces. But Rudy's domineering dad (it wouldn't be a blue-collar coming-of-age film without a domineering dad) wants him to stay put. "Notre Dame is for rich kids, smart kids, great athletes," Pop says. "You're a Ruettiger."
Rudy ignores his old man's counsel, and after setbacks too numerous to recount, he slides into Notre Dame sideways as a junior. He's 26. He impresses the coaches with his obsession. They call it heart. One coach even longs for a celestial heart surgeon: "I wish God would put your heart into some of my players' bodies." A priest, preaching the Gospel According to Genghis Khan, tells our hero, "You've got a warrior's spirit, Rudy. You're a fighter, a battler, it gives you life."
Rudy's warrior spirit manifests itself on the Notre Dame practice squad. He's a live tackling dummy. He loves every minute of it, though, because he has lots of heart. His coach shows lots of heart, too, when he puts Rudy into the final home game of his senior season. There are 28 seconds on the clock, and the Irish are ahead by 21 points.
In an ending that goes back at least to Harold Lloyd in The Freshman, and probably to Frank Merriwell, Rudy sacks the quarterback. The subtle-as-a-cattle-prod score reaches a deafening crescendo, and Rudy's teammates carry him off the field.
And what is the lesson of Rudy? As our hero is told by his buddy who was blown up in the steel mill, "Dreams are what make life tolerable."
Not this movie, however. Screenwriter Angelo Pizzo seems to be aiming for a pigskin version of Hoosiers, which he also wrote. But while Hoosiers had a feel for the plainness and meanness of small-town life, Rudy seems to have reverted to some raccoon-coated view of college.
O.K., so Hoosiers was cynically manipulative, too. At least it had quirky performances by Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper to help it along. Rudy has only Astin, a gently likable if guileless actor who spends much of the movie in a freeze-dried trance, his eyes big and liquid, his jaw slack. The real-life Rudy was a pest of unparalleled persistence. He pestered his way into Notre Dame, he pestered his way onto the football team and then pestered Pizzo into writing a script about him. The role could have been written for the boyishly avid style of Michael J. Fox, who, alas, may finally have been pensioned off from playing unformed young men.
Watching Astin's shameless attempts to snuggle into our hearts brings to mind one of Groucho's lines in Horse Feathers: "Baravelli, you've got the brain of a four-year-old boy, and I bet he was glad to get rid of it."
Crooked players. Crooked coaches. Crooked boosters. Faked math tests. Faked urine tests. Linemen with backed-up brains. A suicidal quarterback who reads SI while lying faceup on a median strip in a busy highway. These are the virtues of The Program, the season's other college football blockbuster. Unfortunately, they're the only virtues. The dopey script was cowritten by Aaron Latham, whose Perfect, a 1985 bomb about an aerobic instructor, may be the worst movie in the history of the cinema.
The Program isn't far from Perfect.